Tuesday, November 3, 2009


At the last minute, my sense of duty got the better of me and I decided to go to the literature festival rather than build my own MMA cage. I'm glad I did. I feared it would be hatefully pretentious, but it wasn't at all. The people to whom I spoke seemed genuinely to like books.

The story of Turkish literature is tragic. The romanization of the alphabet, as the founder of the festival said to me, meant "deleting all your memories, history, emotion -- meaning you start from the beginning." Of course it did. Almost no Turk alive can read anything written in Turkish before Atatürk. Turkey effectively has no literary history. And almost no one here reads any foreign language to the level required to really enjoy reading a book in it -- enough to struggle grimly through a book written in English or French, perhaps, but not to take much pleasure in it. Little is translated. Most Turkish writers are working in a vacuum, reinventing the wheel. Those who do have access to foreign literature, by virtue of a rarified education, can't refer to it without making their own work inaccessible to the vast majority of Turkish readers. I spoke briefly to Serdar Özkan, who tried to persuade me that this wasn't as big a problem as it seemed: a good story, he said, is after all a good story. But the inscription prefacing his latest book, Kayıp Gül, is from Blake. I read most of it while listening to the reading; it is full of references to sick roses. All of these allusions, I imagine, would be lost to 99.99 percent of Turkish readers. So who is this book for? Ironically, the theme of the book is the Turkish propensity to give excessive weight to the opinions of others. Or Others, as Özkan calls them. And the rose is, clearly, used as a metaphor for Turkey.

I asked a few people in the audience if they recognized the inscription. I didn't mean to embarrass anyone, and I hope I didn't. I just wanted to know if I was right about how lost that reference was apt to be. No, they didn't recognize it; it meant nothing to them. These are the kind of people who come to literary festivals, so if anyone here would, they would. I am not at all faulting them: How could they know it? But without knowing it, how could they understand this book? It seemed to me terribly sad.

No, this has nothing to do with the martial arts. But since my two readers seem to be interested in this sort of thing, I thought they wouldn't mind. Also, I'm curious to see how this digression affects the Google ads.

1 comment:

  1. One could draw a connection between this and the damage that has been done to Chinese martial arts in the West - especially the "internal" arts - because of the inability of most Western martial artists to understand written Chinese and the inability (or lack of desire) of many Chinese teachers to impart martial concepts in a way that is readily comprehensible to Westerners.